The Big Sleep

This week, the lovely Krissie (Anne Stuart) joined us for the discussion, set on defending one of her favorite movies. Reactions were mixed, and there were complications in the audio (a tech gremlin kept stopping the recordings) but despite all, we pulled out a fun and (we hope) marginally informative podcast. We also honed our approach to defining/rating mysteries, so there’s that.

Story: The charming Phillip Marlowe is hired by a dying millionaire to find out who’s blackmailing his youngest, and craziest, daughter. In the process, Marlowe gets tangled up in murder, gangsters, rare book sellers and Lauren Bacall.

Detective: Phillip Marlowe

Release Date: August 31, 1946

Writer: Raymond Chandler (book); William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman (screenplay)

Source: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Is it a mystery?

Detective as protagonist?
Lani: Absolutely. It starts right where the trouble starts, when Phillip Marlowe is called in to help a sick old man get his youngest daughter out of trouble. Problem is, the youngest daughter likes trouble. A lot.

Murderer as antagonist?
Lani: Yep. It’s quite a tangled web the bad guy weaves, and sometimes it’s hard to follow all the threads, but they do all lead—eventually—to the same bad guy.

Conflict created by mystery/murder?
Lani: Yes, the conflict is based on Marlowe wanting to get to the bottom of it all, and the murderer wanting him to keep his nose out of it.

Is it a good mystery?

Fair play with all the clues given?
Lani: Yes, although many of the clues were pretty hard to follow at times.

Solved using deduction, not luck?
Lani: Yes; no cheap tricks for Marlowe.

All threads pertaining to the mystery pull together at the end?
Lani: This is where The Big Sleep falls apart. At the end, it’s still ambiguous as to who the murderer is, which I think is a big drawback for a mystery. And no one knows what the hell happened to the poor chauffeur.

Our Ratings and Breakdown:

Jenny says: ? Pops
Mystery: ?, Craft: ?, Suspense: ?, Romance: ?

Lani says: 3.5 Pops
Mystery: 4, Craft: 4, Suspense: 3, Romance: 3

The Maltese Falcon 1941

PODCAST WARNING: Lani and Jenny found it hard to discuss this movie as professionally as they should have; therefore if you’re interested in a serious discussion of The Maltese Falcon, you’ll probably want to skip this one.  If you want to hear two women laughing hysterically about a noir classic, tune in.

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Story: A private detective searches for his partner’s killer and the statue of a black bird, accompanied by a beautiful woman who lies to him a lot.

Sam Spade, the most famous hard-boiled detective ever.

Release Date: October 18, 1941

Writer: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett

Source: The novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett.

Mystery Analysis:
Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Yep.  First character on the scene, owns the whole movie.
Lani: Yes, the first thing you see is Sam, it’s him all the way through.

Murderer as antagonist?
Jenny: Yep.  Shows up in the first scene, drives the protagonist crazy for the whole movie.
Lani: Also there right from the start, coordinating everything.

Conflict created by murder?
Jenny: It doesn’t seem so at first, but it does become evident at the end.
Lani: As soon as the murder happens, yes. Before that, it’s created by the fact that he doesn’t believe a word she says, right from the beginning. Which was good to discover, because neither did I.

Fair play with all the clues given?
Jenny: All the clues are given, but I think Sam makes a big deductive leap at the end, and there’s no way the police have enough evidence to prosecute.  Of course, it was shot in 1941; maybe back then you didn’t need much evidence.
Lani: I give a qualified yes. Some things Sam came to were based upon his deep knowledge of Miles Archer, and I’m not sure we got that knowledge as well in the first couple of seconds before Miles was plot meat.

Solved using deduction, not luck?
Jenny: Yep.  Spade’s a real detective, digging constantly.
Lani: Absolutely. The entire movie is him picking at people for clues. He’s a great example of an active protagonist.

Story Analysis & Ratings:

Jenny says: 5 Pops: Solid mystery, well told.  The romance gets a 1 because that was sex, honey, not love, but then The Maltese Falcon isn’t a romance, so who cares?  The comedy, though: It’s not supposed to be funny but we were on the floor.  We NEED a gif of Brigid kicking Joel Cairo.
Mystery: 4, Craft: 5, Suspense: 4, Romance: 1, Comedy: 5

Lani says: 5 Pops – As a mystery, it’s a five. It does all the things a mystery is supposed to do. The ridiculous things we laughed hysterically about didn’t take away from that, so neither will I. I do have to say, it hasn’t aged well, in that I was laughing at a lot of things I don’t think they intended to be funny. On the other hand, it’s a movie I would absolutely watch again, if for nothing more than the moment he takes the gun away from Cairo, only to give it back loaded. And then, when he does it again with Wilmer. It’s the again that makes it funny.
Mystery: 5, Craft: 4, Suspense: 3 (I was laughing too hard and didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of them), Romance: 1, Comedy: 5

February: Noir/Hardboiled Mystery

Welcome to February, the Valentine’s month, full of hearts and roses.   Yeah, I’ve never understood that because in Ohio, February is the month of the dead, so we’re doing film noir, the genre that says life is grim and hopeless and women are evil betrayers, but thank god there are some men who go down those mean streets who are not themselves mean . . .

Hardboiled mystery was popularized by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich and a host of other cynical, sardonic, hard-drinking, mostly male authors (Craig Rice is one female standout).  Noir is technically a subset of the hardboiled mystery, its main difference being that the detective is not a professional but an ordinary man thrust into dangerous and violent circumstances.   The terms have blurred now, probably because when hardboiled fiction is brought to the screen, it’s usually called “film noir.”   The four noir mystery films we’ll be watching include two adaptations of hardboiled novels, a modern noir film, and a darkly comic homage to genre:

Feb. 6: THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)  (streaming on Amazon) based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett

Feb. 13: THE BIG SLEEP (1946) (streaming free on Amazon Prime) based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler

Feb. 20: LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) (streaming on Amazon) based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy
Feb. 27: KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) (streaming on Amazon) based in part on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday

So we won’t play the sap for you, sweethearts, but we’ll be podcasting every Monday, still trying to figure out what makes a good mystery story.

[Note: I promised a chat at the end of every month, but this month I’ve been blindsided by some big stuff and I just didn’t get my act together.  Those of you who want to chat, please discuss in the comments and pick a good day and time and I’ll try to set it up for this month and the months to come.]


Sherlock Holmes 2009

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Story: Someone is murdering young women in London, so the police call in Sherlock Holmes to solve the crimes.  Which he does in the opening of the movie, only to have the Big Bad escape which leads to him using his deductive powers to hunt him down again.  Plus Moriarty.

Detective: Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective the world has ever known, here given a manic intensity and sexuality by Robert Downey, Jr. not to mention making Holmes an action hero.

Release Date: Dec. 25, 2009

Writers: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg

Source: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but not any one title in particular


Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Yes, definitely.  He fills the screen, albeit a little more flamboyantly than the original Holmes.

Lani: You bet.

Murderer as antagonist?

Jenny: Yes, definitely.  He practically cackles in his black heart, challenges Holmes to catch him, and continues murdering with impunity.

Lani: It’s very clear who the antagonist is, and he’s consistently the antagonist from scene 1.

Conflict created by murder?

Jenny: Yes.  Holmes is drawn into the story by previous murders and is spurred on by subsequent killings.

Lani: Yep; it starts with Holmes saving one girl, then trying to stop the antagonist before he kills some more.

Fair play with all the clues given?

Jenny: Yes, although there’s so much STUFF going on in this movie, it’s hard to find the clues.  That’s fair play, though: red herrings are pretty much a staple in the mystery genre.

Lani: Not really. There are clues like the smell of evidence, which are expressed by seeing Sherlock Holmes smelling things, but it’s not enough information that the viewer can solve the puzzle herself. While all the clues are shown, they aren’t really given, thus making it impossible for the viewer to actively participate, which is the element that I think rules this out as a mystery. I think a key qualifier for a mystery is that the viewer has everything she needs to solve along with the detective.

Solved using deduction, not luck?

Jenny: Yes.  It’s kind of Holmes’s specialty.

Lani: Yep.


Jenny says: 5 Pops (the four for romance doesn’t really count since that’s such a minor subplot)

Mystery: 5, Craft: 5, , Suspense: 5, Romance: 4, Comedy: 5

Lani says: 5 Pops (with the proviso that it’s not a mystery, nor is it a romance, and that’s where this story doesn’t work as well, but it’s not what it’s supposed to be; it’s an Action Adventure, and for that, it’s a solid 5)

Mystery: ~ (not a mystery in the way we mean it, although the howdunnit is excellent, so this would be a 5, but… not a mystery), Action/Adventure: 5, Craft: 5, , Suspense: 5, Romance: 3, Comedy: 5

Evil Under the Sun 1982

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Story: A group of people gather at a seaside resort where jealousy and hatred swirl around a famous actress, observed by the equally famous detective Hercule Poirot.

Detective: Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fastidiously annoying little Belgian turned into a fabulously over-the-top big Belgian by Peter Ustinov.  (The entire cast of excellent actors pretty much follows him into camp excess as the chew the gorgeous Majorcan scenery.)

Release Date: March 5, 1982

Writer: Anthony Shaffer

Source: Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel of the same name, with significant changes.

Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Yes.  Ustinov’s Poirot is bigger than life, doggedly inquisitive, and in the movie version, on a paid investigation.

Lani: Absolutely. Although there is a minor blip in the beginning with a murder that seems unconnected, Poirot takes over as protagonist and is in conflict with the antagonist to solve his mystery from the (almost) start.

Murderer as antagonist?

Jenny: Yes, something that’s made clear in the big showdown at the end, complete with Poirot stopping the Big Bads as they head for the door.

Lani: Yes, even before s/he commits the murder, which makes for a solid antagonist and conflict all the way through.

Conflict created by murder?

Jenny: They’re all at each other’s throats before the murder which happens half way into the film, so the conflict looks like it’s being stirred up by the victim, but if you look closely, it’s being stage-managed by the murderers.  Still, as we said in the podcast, the murder is actually part of the find-the-macguffin/cover-up-the-theft-of-the-macguffin conflict between Poirot (hired to find the diamond) and the thieves who have come to the island to murder the only person who can pin the theft on them.

Lani: The problem here is the question, not the answer. During the discussion, we had some clarity on whether it’s the murder that creates the conflict, or the desire of the protagonist/detective to find answers, and the antagonist/criminal to hide them. I think this question needs to be about the conflict centered on the resolution of the mystery – protagonist yay, antagonist nay – and to that question, I answer a hearty, “Yes.”

Fair play with all the clues given?

Jenny: Yes and no.  The audience gets the clues when Poirot gets them, and he even lists them near the end of the movie, but they’re for only one partner in the murder, and they don’t lead to the key to the mystery, the motive.  It gets murkier on the second partner in the plot because the clues are weak and while prominently displayed on the screen, obscure.

Lani: I had some minor quibbles about playing fair; there are a couple of reveals at the end that are kind of there as clues, but not entirely. So I would say predominantly yes, with a couple minor exceptions.

Solved using deduction, not luck?

Jenny: There’s some bad luck on the part of the murderers–tossing the bottle into the sea and having it almost hit a witness, for example–but Poirot solves it by deduction.

Lani: Absolutely. It’s Poirot’s ability to distill the clues into a narrative that tells the tale which solves this mystery.


Jenny says: 5 Pops
Mystery: 5,  Craft: 4, , Suspense: 5, Comedy: 5, Fabulousness: 5

Lucy says: 5 Pops
Mystery: 5,  Craft: 4, , Suspense: 5, Comedy: 5, Fabulousness: 11 (did you see the polka dots?)


Question from podcast:
We were trying to remember who narrated the first scene on the moors.  The answer is nobody, it’s a series of quick cuts: woman running across skyline, runs into police office and says, “There’s a body on the moors,” police open the car door and tell her she needn’t look again, shot of body with marks on neck, shot of doctor estimating time of death (doesn’t mention cause of death.”  Entire sequence is two minutes.
Then there’s the scene in the insurance office which is another three minutes (and where we thought the story actually started).
Then five minutes in, the story switches to the hotel.